Graham Hancock and the ‘Lost Civilisation’

Holiday reading

Fingerprints of the Gods, paperback edition 1996

Fingerprints of the Gods, paperback edition 1996

I feel ashamed that I have not written a blog post for almost a year. This is compounded by the feeling of guilt that what I am about to write ought to have been written more than seventeen years ago. In March 1996, I was waiting for a flight at Manchester Airport, taking me on holiday to the Canary Islands. I spotted a book, Fingerprints of the Gods: a Quest for the Beginning and the End that piqued my curiosity. I had been vaguely aware of its publication and knew something about its use of the ideas of Robert Schoch regarding the date of the Great Sphinx at Giza, but had never picked up a copy as its very size (607 pages in the paperback edition) daunted me. Nevertheless, I bought a copy, thinking that it might be light relief from the more academic books I was taking as holiday reading.

Despite the reputation of the Canary Islands for a temperate and dry climate all year round, March 1996 was one of the coldest and wettest months in more than fifty years. Expecting temperatures in the low twenties, I had taken no warm or waterproof clothing other than the coat I had worn on the journey to the airport in England. As a result, I had plenty of time for reading, being stuck in my holiday apartment at Puerto Rico de Gran Canaria, a singularly unattractive holiday resort. I managed to read Fingerprints of the Gods from cover to cover in a couple of days, despite my growing unhappiness. It started badly for me, with a discussion of the Piri Re‘is map, which does not show Antarctica as Hancock claims. It went downhill from there but I was determined that I would create a website refuting its claims as soon as I got home.

The Great Sphinx at Giza in 1988

The Great Sphinx at Giza in 1988

Back in Chester, I started writing up some notes for a website that was originally called “Cult and Fringe Archaeology” and was hosted on my personal website. However, it quickly became apparent that Hancock’s data was largely recycled from earlier writers, so I focused more on the first appearance of the data and its refutation. I wrote a little about Graham Hancock, dealing with his misuse of Egyptology. I eventually became diverted from dealing with his work into the wider implications of Bad Archaeology. And there things have languished since the spring of 1996.

Fingerprints of the Gods

Criticisms of the very brief page on the “lost civilisation” on the main website have become more frequent in recent months. I admit that I have not written the refutations of his arguments that I originally intended (indeed, I say on the page that “[A] comprehensive analysis of his works would require a massive book, since it would need not only to refute his claims but also to present the comprehensive contextual evidence to show why his ideas cannot stand up”). This post is the start of my attempt to remedy that omission.

Fingerprints of the Gods, second edition 2001

Fingerprints of the Gods, second edition 2001

First published in 1995, the book is divided into eight separate parts, most with numerous chapters (52 in total), almost 50 pages of references and 8 pages of bibliography. A second edition, issued in 2001 with a different subtitle, includes a new introduction in which Hancock dismisses his critics and three appendices (almost a hundred pages of transcripts of interviews with BBC reporters, an attempted critique of radiocarbon dating by Sean Hancock and a critique of the radiocarbon dates for Tiahuanaco, also by Sean Hancock); the cover of the paperback loudly proclaims “Includes 40,000 word update”.

According to the cover blurb of the first paperback edition (1996), the book contains “a drastic re-evaluation of man’s past, using the high-tech tools of modern archaeology, geology and astronomy… [and] reveals not only the clear fingerprints of an unknown civilisation that flourished during the last ice-age, but also horrifying conclusions about the type and extent of planetary catastrophe that would have had to occur in order to obliterate almost all traces of it”. This is not the first book to make such sweeping claims, but it is certainly the one to attract the most attention.

To live up to the claims of the blurb, the evidence it presents must be powerful and will have to explain the data relating to the last Ice Age (which I take to mean the Devensian/Weichselian/ Würm Glaciations in Europe, Wisconsin in North America, Mérida/Llaniquihue in South America) better than existing models. It is widely recognised among archaeologists that the book utterly fails to do this, but Graham Hancock quickly developed a loyal and vocal following.

He and a coterie of similar writers (including Robert Bauval, Robert Schoch, Rand and Rose Flem-Ath among others) tried to promote themselves as the “New Egyptologists” during the late 1990s, modifying a term used by archaeological theorists during the 1960s and 70s. The Egyptological establishment was and remains unimpressed. His analyses of South American and Meso-American archaeology have perhaps had less impact on popular consciousness, although Tiwanaku is mentioned by some commenters on the main site as an alleged problem for the mainstream.

The name of Khufu inside the Great Pyramid; after claiming it was fraudulent, Hancock later admitted that it dates the construction to Khufu's reign

The name of Khufu inside the Great Pyramid; after claiming it was fraudulent, Hancock later admitted that it dates the construction to Khufu’s reign

Unlike many Bad Archaeologists, though, Hancock has modified his conclusions in the light of irrefutable evidence that earlier conclusions were wrong. This is unusual and something he uses to reassure his supporters that, unlike writers such as Erich von Däniken, he is capable of recognising that conclusions may have to be changed in the light of new evidence. Indeed, he continued to write further books (Keeper of Genesis with Robert Bauval, Heaven’s Mirror and Underworld), further exploring his idea of an advanced world-wide civilisation during the later Pleistocene.

The ‘lost civilisation’ does not stand up to scrutiny

Archibald Sayce: a man who really did discover a lost civilisation, the Hittite Empire

Archibald Sayce: a man who really did discover a lost civilisation, the Hittite Empire. Source

So, why do mainstream archaeologists reject his hypothesis of an Ice Age civilisation? Hancock and his supporters maintain that this is because of the hidebound nature of academic archaeology. This shows a failure to understand how academia works. Careers are made by overturning accepted hypotheses: the person who discovers a previously unknown civilisation would have their future career assured, but only if they are able to provide evidence that it actually existed. This would take the form of remains dating to the period that civilisation flourished.

What does Hancock do? Faced with a complete lack of contemporary evidence for his “lost civilisation”, he claims that it can be detected through its influence on later cultures. In one or two cases, he tries to show that the accepted dates for monuments of known civilisations are wrong and that they are actually from the eleventh millennium BC. In these cases, his redating of the monuments has not been accepted by mainstream archaeologists. I will be working on a detailed refutation of the eight major sections of the book over coming weeks, which will be published on the main site.


First 1421, now 1434: Gavin Menzies and historical revisionism

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By Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

In 2003, former submarine captain Gavin Menzies published a work that claimed to rewrite the history of the ‘Age of Exploration’, 1421: the year China discovered the world. It’s an amusing commentary on American insularity that the edition published in the USA alters the subtitle to The year China discovered America: clearly the rest of the world doesn’t matter to Americans.

In the book, Menzies presented evidence that a Chinese admiral, Zhèng Hé (鄭和, 1371–1435, born Ma He, also Cheng Ho) had been sent by the Ming Emperor Yongle (永樂, 1360-1424, born Zhu Di, also Ch’eng Tsu or Yung Lo) on a voyage of discovery. That much is uncontroversial, as Zhèng Hé’s voyages around the Indian Ocean are well documented in contemporary records. Where Menzies departs from academic orthodoxy is in his claim that the fleet went on from the Indian Ocean to discover Australia in the east, Antarctica in the south, the Americas in the west and circumnavigate Greenland in the north. These are astonishing claims and must surely be backed up by good, contemporary evidence.

The Newport Tower, Rhode Island (USA): not a Chinese lighthouse but an English colonial windmill

Alas, no. The best Menzies can do is throw in the usual (European) maps that Bad Archaeologists are so fond of, some inscribed stones (without reproducing the inscriptions), the odd mystery building (such as the Newport Tower, a seventeenth-century windmill!), unidentified shipwrecks and other very poorly documented discoveries. All his claims have been effectively debunked. Perhaps more than anything else, the failure of the Chinese fleet to reach Europe, where it would have been documented by the literate late medieval societies flourishing throughout the continent, should raise eyebrows.

So in 2009 he published a new work, 1434: the year a magnificent Chinese fleet sailed to Italy and ignited the Renaissance. The subtitle makes an even more astonishing claim than that of 1421! When does Menzies think that the Renaissance started, for goodness sake? Where is the Italian documentation for the visit of a Chinese fleet? It seems to have been universally panned.

What is the appeal of these two books, derided by the majority of serious historians? There is the expert-bashing aspect, for a start. People always like to see them brought down a peg or two and when it is done by an amateur, it makes them feel that perhaps anyone can do it. But there has been a more insidious aspect to the popularity of Gavin Menzies. Because these books are published as a work of history, they degrade serious historical work. The standards of these books, which are at best wishful thinking and at worst outright fabrication, ought to have prevented any publisher from putting them out as non-fiction or, at the very least, to have ensured that they were marketed as works of speculation. Instead, we see them on the shelves of the history sections of any bookshop, crammed between biographies of Stalin and Hitler (although, I’m relieved to say, 1434 is nowhere near as ubiquitous as 1421). The general public does not know and cannot be expected to know that Menzies works are utter rubbish. They look like history books: Menzies follows Graham Hancock’s trick of stuffing the book with footnotes, which most of his readers will never pursue, thinking that he is quoting genuinely relevant evidence. As far as I know, Hancock was the first to do this, as earlier works of Bad Archaeology are frustratingly without adequate bibliographies, often making it impossible to identify the sites or discoveries for which they are making claims. No, Menzies works look like ‘proper’ history books, stuffed with boring endnotes that somehow prove their academic standing.

There has been a further, more political repercussion to this work. There are nationalists in China who, echoing the old Soviet craze for ascribing every invention useful to humanity as Russian in origin, are seeking to claim all discoveries for their nation. Having pride in one’s achievements is not in itself a bad thing and it is certainly good for us in the west to realise that Europe is not the source of all civilisation and knowledge. However, when it turns into revisionism of the kind that makes outlandish claims without evidence or suppresses contrary evidence, then we are straying into the realms of social evil. Creating generations of people with an entirely wrong notion of their past is the type of wickedness that one usually associates with religions.